I’m often surprised how much fun it is to play the simple song Happy Birthday for family or friends on their special day. It’s a fairly easy song to play as a sing-along. It can also be fun to play it fingerstyle as a guitar solo.
In this lesson I’ll teach you how to play Happy Birthday fingerstyle guitar, but more importantly you’ll learn, in a step-by-step manner, how to think about turning a melody into a fingerstyle arrangement. We’ll use the song Happy Birthday for this lesson. You will end up learning how to play Happy Birthday on guitar, but the process will work with any simple melody if you know which chords to play.
Step 1 – Start With The Happy Birthday Melody
Start of by getting really clear on the melody. When I’m struggling to create a fingerstyle version of a song usually it’s because I have a fuzzy idea of what the melody is. If I cannot either hum or play the melody three times in a row the same way I’m not ready to add the chords.
Play the melody yourself until you can play it correctly without looking at the notes. Though it may be more difficult it also helps to hum along with the notes you’re playing on the guitar. This active process helps focus on the melody.
As a side note it’s okay to change the melody. Just make sure to play it consistently the way you want to play it.
Ste 2 – Chords Come Next – C, F and G
Next play the chords and hum the melody. Listen carefully how the melody sounds with the chords changes. Which notes cue the change? In other words get clear where to change chords in connection with which notes.
Step 3 – Block Out The Chords
Once you’re clear on where the chords changes with which melody notes you’ll want to start to play block chords along with the melody notes. I give a example of this in the video just after I play the melody alone.
I usually use the first two fingers to play the melody and pluck other notes in the chord along with them. It’s often best to keep the melody in the highest note so they are easy to ear, but not always. It also helps to strike the melody notes a little harder to make them stand out.
This stage takes a bit of experimentation and trial and error. I like to break the song down into small sections and work on it a little at a time until it sounds like the song I’m trying to play. Keep it simple at this stage.
Step 4 – Add Some Movement
Now it’s time to spice it up. Start to add a finger picking pattern. A simple arpeggio is often enough, but it helps to have a repertoire of fingerpicking patterns that you can already play to experiment with.
Again you’ll need to experiment. Once you find a fingerpicking pattern that fits go back and work on each section of the song again to integrate the pattern with the melody. You may need to tweak the melody a little or change the fingering of the chord to get it to work right.
Step 5 (Optional) – Add Some Harmony Notes
If your happy with what the song sounds like in step 4 there’s no need to go further. Just keep practicing it until the timing is tight and the melody is clear.
I like to take it a step further and add some harmony notes to the melody at specific places in the song. I do this by playing two notes at a time with two fingers. One note is the melody and the other is the harmony note.
You can hear a good example of this in my song The Last Teardrop. First I play the theme without harmony. Then the second time I play it with harmony.
La Ultima Lagrima (The Last Teardrop)
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